How to Tell a Turtle From a Tortoise

For one thing, tortoises have "tiny elephant feet."


A gopher tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus, on the side of the road in Wiggins, Mississippi. The species is considered threatened.

People are prone to stereotyping, but we love it when someone flips the script.

So when Hilary Brown asked us what the difference is between turtles and tortoises, we were happy to learn that our notions about turtles were all wet.

Turtle or tortoise?

Sheila Madrak, a San Diego-based wildlife biologist who specializes in sea turtles, has a simple answer.

“All of them are turtles,” she says.

The end.

Okay, there’s more to the story but that part is true. “Turtle” is the umbrella term for all 200 species of the testudine group, which includes turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. All turtles have two distinct features: A shell to which their ribs and vertebrae are fused, and a pelvic girdle that sits inside their rib cage. This “compressed anatomical structure,” says Madrak, is what gives turtles their signature lumbering walk.

Turtles can be aquatic, semi-aquatic, or mostly terrestrial. Tortoises are turtles that live on land and aren't equipped for water.

One easy way to tell a tortoise from a turtle is to look at its feet, which are “designed for trucking around on land,” says Madrak.

Or even underneath it, since some tortoises are burrowers, like the gopher tortoisesof the southeastern United States.

“They look like tiny elephant feet,” whereas semi-aquatic and aquatic turtle feet are webbed. Only sea turtles have true flippers.

Most turtles have streamlined shells but there are some exceptions. Box turtles, for example, have a domed shell, as do Sonoran mud turtles and all tortoises. (Related: Turtles...

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